Why the Cardinals made Budda Baker the NFL’s highest-paid safety

Aug 25, 2020, 3:30 PM
Arizona Cardinals safety Budda Baker (32) leads teammates onto the field during an NFL football tra...

Arizona Cardinals safety Budda Baker (32) leads teammates onto the field during an NFL football training camp Wednesday, Aug. 19, 2020, in Glendale, Ariz. (AP Photo/Matt York)

(AP Photo/Matt York)

From the Arizona Cardinals’ perspective, getting a contract extension done for safety Budda Baker was a no-brainer.

During a pandemic that’s added more financial uncertainty, with several franchise faces entering contract years and even though the defensive back has yet to record an interception in his three-year career, general manager Steve Keim finalized an agreement that extends Baker’s contract four years, through 2024. It reportedly pays him $59 million.

“I think his production speaks for itself,” Keim said. “His versatility to play in the box, to play the deep half, to do the number of things he does in coverage really says a lot about Budda’s style, his play, his passion. And really when you look at the safeties and the way the market is nowadays, the four highest-paid safeties, I believe, are (at least) 26 years old. Budda’s 25.”

“Twenty-four, baby,” Baker corrected him.

Keim valued Baker as a first-round pick in 2017 and traded up to select the Washington product 36th overall. Since then, Baker has played under three different defensive schemes, switching positions each year. He started seven games as a rookie under then-defensive coordinator James Bettcher, moving from deep to the box, and got a special teams Pro Bowl invitation.

Under coach Steve Wilks’ regime in 2018, Baker moved closer to the line of scrimmage, playing a nickel position. And then when defensive coordinator Vance Joseph arrived last year under head coach Kliff Kingsbury, Baker slid back to free safety and led the NFL with 104 solo tackles.

The Cardinals expect he should make a leap in the second year of a defensive scheme with more talent around him that can optimize his versatility.

Baker’s contract, which pays an average of $14.75 million per year, may have raised eyebrows across the NFL, notably because of his lack of interceptions. That overlooks his 3.5 sacks, 14 passes defensed, four forced fumbles and 18 tackles for loss in 46 career games.

Baker has lined up as a nickel corner, as a linebacker in the box, deep at safety and even has 197 snaps on the edge, according to Pro Football Focus.

His reputation is growing league-wide.

Baker this offseason was voted 97th on the NFL Network’s Top 100, an annual player ranking.

Mic’d up opponents love him, and those who scour tape see Baker pop on seemingly mundane plays.

Keim led off a team scouting meeting by highlighting one play by Baker against the Pittsburgh Steelers — it represented what Keim wants the Cardinals’ identity to be and also why the GM loves Baker.

With Pittsburgh at Arizona’s 16-yard line last year, Baker lined up deep on the right side and attacked a quick-hit screen pass. But once Steelers receiver Diontae Johnson reversed field, Baker took a wide-arching angle to meet him on the opposite side of the field.

“Really that was an emphasis on, ‘What does a Cardinal look like?'” Keim said of showing that clip to his scouts.

“The bottom line is you can’t find a player who plays with more intensity and passion,” the GM added. “I can promise you there’s very few of those guys across the National Football League. When you talk to guys like (Steelers coach) Mike Tomlin and other coaches across the league prior to the game, the one name that comes up quite a bit is Budda Baker: ‘That guy’s different.'”

Keim said getting Baker’s contract done gives the Cardinals more clarity about what money is where moving forward. Even though it could financially squeeze Arizona with Patrick Peterson, Larry Fitzgerald and Kenyan Drake among those who are up for new contracts in 2021, the GM felt like it was a must-do.

The good news for the Cardinals is that Baker’s teammates won’t be jealous. They know that the contract is well-earned because of his reputation of being a quiet, relentless player in practices and games. Outside linebacker Chandler Jones had players applaud Baker for his new deal when the safety entered the locker room Tuesday.

Baker, who said he might use the cash to surprise his mom and buy himself a house, knows he must live up to the big pay-day.

“It’s definitely an exciting thing for me to be able to say that (I’m the highest-paid safety),” he said. “It’s a very cool experience right now. For me, I’m trying to earn what I make now. I’m labeled as this player and I have to show out and continue to show out each week.”

Added Keim: “We were all extremely confident we know what we’re going to get out of this young man. His passion for the game, his practice habits, the way he shows up every Sunday, I have 100% confidence that Budda is going to give it to us week in and week out.”

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